Peter McCagg ’71 gave this homily at the Alumni Memorial Chapel Service on Sunday of Reunion Weekend 2022.
I speak before you today as one of you—someone whose life has been deeply affected by my days at St. Andrew’s, which are now more than 50 years in the past.
Everything I have to say here is true—pretty much. I say this in the tradition of Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five, which opens with the line: “All this happened, more or less.” The movie version of Vonnegut’s novel came out in 1972. Yep. Fifty years ago. The film begins with the sentence: “I have become unstuck in time.” And standing before you in this space, that is how I feel. The upraised voices of 180 boys oh-so-long ago bringing familiar hymns to life resonate in my mind’s ear even as I speak.
Memory tends to select from and then shape and shade what may have actually happened. So, what I share today as I skip about in time should be taken with this grain of salt.
My SAS days remain precious to me. Not all were stellar days, of course, but I remember…
Being assigned to William Cameron’s table. Chicken is served. Grilled? Fried? BBQ? I don’t recall, but when I reached for a piece to eat with my fingers, he cleared his throat and said: “Boy. This is not a picnic.” Talk about a metaphor for Second Form life!
Headmaster Robert Moss proclaiming, from wildly out of the blue, a “free day” at breakfast—a school holiday on account of it being his dog’s birthday. Thanks, Ranger!
An evening chapel service that consisted entirely of Toby Roberts ’70 reading “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.” And now I wear my trousers rolled.
John Cole ’67 ensnaring a large number of the East Dorm boys with sugar and guile before slapping us all with multiple ringers for participating in a spontaneous “toss the underwear around in the dark” game. I think Jim McBride ’71 was the one who got caught red-handed, but my alcove neighbor Joe Pistell ’71 was responsible for getting me into the game. And no, I have no idea whose underwear it was…
Riding the bus home from “big” games, victorious again, still undefeated, still sweaty and dirty in our uniforms, joyously belting out “Oh when the Saints…” We were good. (As I recall.)
Five years of memories large and small all jostling for space in an aging mind. I find myself dumbfounded at where the heck about 50 years or so of my life went. Zip. Gone. Except for that which memory has somehow hung on to. In my case, the road stretched from the mangroves and mosquitos of South Florida to the wildly lit neon lanes of Tokyo. How did that happen?
Well, after five years of the cloistered, all-male SAS experience, on day one of my college experience—minute one, actually, I stepped off the train at Princeton Station, where a young woman smiled at me and asked if I would like some help with my bags. Five years at SAS, and I had hardly seen, much less spoken with a girl. Five seconds on my college campus to be, and: Do I want some help with my bags? Princeton, I have arrived. My elation was short-lived. On the way to find my dorm, I casually (right) asked if my Good Samaritan was Japanese. She was clearly Asian, and just that summer, I had made the first Asian person of my acquaintance, a young man from northern Japan, which is why I asked. I was stunned when she dropped my bags, turned to face me and, wagging a finger in my face, declared: No. I am Chinese.” She added, “And while you’re here, you better learn the difference.”
And while you’re here, you better learn the difference. Imagine that.
The rest, as they say, is (my) history. Just think. A single encounter may radically alter the course of your life. You may know that. I had no clue.
And so here we are, some of us 50 or more years after graduating from this school, gathering to relive, or at least recount, days now long gone by. And with the days now gone, we have also lost some classmates and others we spent so much time with so long ago. We commemorate them all this morning.
Among them, our class leader: Tom Hooper ’71. A young Black man in a 1960s privileged white boy’s world. I surely will never fully comprehend what it must have been like for Tom and those few Black students who helped SAS break the race barrier. I roomed with a Black student, too. It is easy to say, I fear, but I don’t remember thinking at the time about the blackness of Tom or Jim or Gaz or Mike. I’d like to think it is at least partly due to the truth of something another classmate, Peter Hildick-Smith ’71, once said to me. We were at a bar in NYC near Union Square, reflecting on the loss of another classmate, Joe Pistell, whom I mentioned earlier, and how well we did and did not really know one another when we were here at SAS. Peter said (pretty much): It doesn’t matter what your grades were, what sports you played, who you hung out with, whether you were in the smoke shack crew or the Henley crew (or both)... we were all, we are all brothers. And I am certain that Peter would have added sisters, had there been any in attendance when we were here.
I also think it is safe to say that only Tom could have galvanized his classmates into making significant financial contributions to the school to support the causes of fairness and equality that he championed his entire life. Honoring Tom became our cause. It is fitting that he is now memorialized on the walls of this school as a man who was always ready to help those who might need some. Thank you, Tom. And thank you, Rob Seyffert ’71, for the powerful portrait. May SAS long remember this good man.
And, speaking of a good man: in a moment, my father’s name will be among those read on this day of remembering—one of the SAS alums whom we’ve lost in the last three years. Peter King McCagg, Class of 1947. This is/would be their 75th reunion.
I learned something valuable about life from my father that I find best expressed in a Ray Bradbury quote from Dandelion Wine. Bradbury wrote, “And, after all, isn’t that what life is all about, the ability to go around back and come up inside other people’s heads to look out at the damned fool miracle and say: oh, so that’s how you see it!?” To me this is the key to experiencing wonder. Empathy and kindness also flow from this ability. It helps explain one other lasting SAS memory I have.
Bull Cameron (again), whom I’d sought out as Master of The Day, when a poor throw by me or a poor catch by Bill Bean ’72 resulted in a broken window in the III Form Common Room door. Mr. Cameron assured me it was a good thing I’d gone looking for him rather than the other way around. Thirty-six marks in case of the latter; only six in the case I am recounting here. Ultimately, I received no marks for this incident, and the window was miraculously fixed the next day.
And it seems others among us had similar experiences with the man. Last night, Sheldon Parker ’71 mentioned confessing to being late to a school function. Mr. Cameron’s reply: Did anyone see you?
So life at SAS may not be a picnic, but in my experience it stands out for having been a safe place, a fundamentally decent and caring place to grow up. Of course, there were a fair share of shenanigans and moments best perhaps to forget; but here we all are… after all these years… home in a sense.
As we wind down this Reunion of classes young and old, a Reunion three years in the coming, let us give thanks for those who helped make St. Andrew’s School a place that would embrace the likes of all of us. May we long remember in the precious landscapes of our lives that we are brothers and sisters, even or especially in our diversity, and in our desire to lead meaningful and helpful lives wherever life leads us.
Travel safely home.
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